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TOOLS : The Paper Chase

August 31, 1995|CHARLES PERRY

It's hard to find parchment paper in supermarkets these days. Wax paper, plastic film and aluminum foil, yes, but not parchment paper.

What a shame. For baking, those other products are no substitute. Wax paper is flimsy, things stick to foil and, although plastic film is fine for covering foods, you don't want to cook in it.

Parchment paper has none of those failings. It has high wet strength (making it essential for cooking poisson en papillote ) and passes no flavor or chemical to the things it touches. Above all, it releases foods neatly. That's why professional cooks set cakes on parchment paper when they send them to the oven. You're a fool to bake anything with a delicate texture, like lace cookies and free-standing meringues, on anything else.

Parchment paper is not the same as parchment; that's a sort of fine leather that was used as a writing material in medieval books. Parchment paper is a pretty old product itself, however, having been made for the last 300 years.

It starts out as wood fibers, like most other kinds of paper. These are dipped in sulfuric acid, softening the fibers' outer walls; when the acid is washed off, the fibers bond together into a solid membrane of pure cellulose. Hence the strength (heavy-grade parchment paper is used for lamp shades) and water resistance.

It's great stuff. But these days, you just about have to go to a cookware store to find it.

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